Is Chinese identity personal, national, cultural, political? Does it migrate, become malleable or transmuted? When is it authentic, sacred, exotic, kitsch? Wing’s latest project employs various documentary and conceptual photographic strategies to explore the vast and complex array of Chinese identity experiences in Minnesota, throughout the United States, and in China.

This past weekend, I was able to attend the opening reception of Wing Young Huie’s latest project, titled Chinese-ness. As a Chinese-American adoptee, the concept of Chinese-ness is one that I have thought about almost my entire life.  I have often wondered what constitutes Chinese-ness. Am I Chinese because I was born in China? Am I Chinese because I look Chinese? Is my Chinese identity diluted by having non-Chinese parents? Whitewashed because I have lived in America for so long? Illegitimate because I a can’t speak Mandarin? Who has the ability to label me as Chinese or not – my peers, myself, the Chinese government? And does any of this matter?

As I looked at Wing’s photography, I thought about my visions of the Chinese dream, the American dream, and my own personal dreams. I was particularly drawn to Wing’s side-by-side portraits, in which he dressed in the clothing of another middle-aged, Chinese man – a man he could have become had circumstanced been different. Through this part of the project, he becomes an impostor in other people’s Chinese identities. These images mirrored my own feelings of inadequacy or “fake-ness” in relation to my Chinese identity and the questions I hold of the alternate Chinese self I could have become.

During the reception, Wing spotted me and asked if I had been to his gallery before. I said I hadn’t, and that left him curious as to why I was there. I told him that I, too, was Chinese American and shared with him some of the questions about Chinese-ness that I’ve had circulating in my mind. Through this, I realized that though we are separated by gender, age, countries of birth, and life experiences, the thoughts we hold and ponder on identity, the self, and the concept of Chinese-ness are actually quite similar.

Where we differed substantially was on the idea of “fitting in” ethnically. During a talk to all of the gala attendees, Wing recounted memories of his childhood in the nearly all white city of Duluth, Minnesota. He showed us a photo of his all white first grade class and told the story of how he avoided the other Asian student at his high school. He then explained how he felt white, having been influenced by the same music,  T.V. shows, and culture as his white counterparts. I could hardly relate to this statement. While I sometimes jokingly say I forget I’m not white when I’m with my white friends, a look down at my arm, the wind blowing my hair in my face, or a nostalgic thought about my birthcountry usually does the trick. I do listen to Ingrid Michaelson and adore Zooey Deschanel as Jess in the show, New Girl, but I have very much been shaped by Saturday morning Chinese language and dance classes, trips to the Asian Market with my father, mooncakes, lucky envelopes, and  spicy ramen – so much that I can in no way say that I am white.

While Wing avoided the other Asian student at his school,  I immediately gravitated towards other Asians. When I was in third grade, I remember befriending a Chinese second grader. Though she spoke minimal English, and I spoke minimal Mandarin, I felt a level of comfort and familiarity with her that was different from my non-Chinese friends.

Another striking difference is that, until this past spring, Wing had never been to China and had ambivalent feelings about meeting his family there. I spent the first three years of my life in China and the next ten years curious about my roots, my hometown, and my homeland. I was thirteen the first time I went back, fifteen the next time, and I am planning on returning again next spring. While I love fourth of July fireworks, Wisconsin cheeses, and the Grand Canyon, a piece of my heart will always long for China and my family there.

It seems to me that Wing’s young reflections on Chinese-ness made him want to blend in with his white peers as much as possible. My reflections on Chinese-ness have left me with a hunger and passion to learn more about my first country and culture and to strengthen the Chinese side of my identity.  I think Wing’s photography on this subject is powerful because it is so personal. To me, the photos show the collective thoughts, questions, and dreams we all have, while simultaneously highlighting the diversity in the Chinese experience. Moreover, these photos display how the variance of our Chinese identities influence the ways in which respond to these thoughts, answer the questions, and live out the dreams. I came to The Third Place Gallery with certain questions and expectations, and I left with more questions (both old and new), more dreams of China, and a more fulfilled sense of Chinese-ness.

8 responses to “Chinese-ness

  1. For your consideration:

    — I once knew a fellow who, though born and raised in Detroit, considered himself “Southern” because he’d lived down here for many years and had married a Southern girl. I found the claim ludicrous

    — I was thrilled when my China-born daughter first tasted and then ate – with great relish! – BBQ, grits and biscuits and gravy (though she doesn’t like watermelon, alas)

    — In the World War II film series “Why We Fight”, it was noted that Schickelgruber had famously claimed that anybody born of German heritage, no matter where he lived or how long his ancestors had lived there instead of in “Germany” (a country then only about seventy years old), was and always would be German, an idea rated as “hogwash” by such Americans as Sen. Robert Wagner, Wendell Wilkie, Henry J. Kaiser, Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Walter Krueger, Admiral Nimitz, and about 30% of the men serving then in the US armed forces. Yet, I make no doubt that many of those men harbored pride in their heritage and the contributions made to our country by German-speaking immigrants (some of whom are my own ancestors). The final irony is that Schickelgruber himself was not German at all, but Austrian by birth

    What is “identity”? What is “race”? “Ethnicity”? “Culture”? As the blog post you linked elsewhere notes, small children tend not to worry about these things, and it is up to us parents to try to help them lay the foundations of concept that will allow them to sort them out later in life. I am completely at sea on this, so I’m glad that you’ve taken it up.

    I suggest that there is some difficulty here for the average white parent because many (most?) white Americans cannot point to a single ethnic heritage (my own is English / Irish / Scottish / German / Cherokee) and so “ethnicity” plays little role in their self-concepts, likely far, far less than college alma mater or state / region of birth or even favorite sports team.


    • Ooph, I don’t know where I would have said small children don’t worry about race, culture, or identity. Infants begin to notice racial differences between 3 and 6 months of age, and I received my first racially charged insult when I was in kindergarten. But I do agree that it’s parents’ jobs talk about race and racism with their children in order to lay down a functional moral framework as well as preparing children of color for a lifetime of race based stereotypes and words.


  2. Pingback: Balancing Two Worlds: Creating A Unified Identity | Red Thread Broken·

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